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As an economics major at Harvard University, Tim Coleman was on the fast track for a Wall Street career. But after basketball season ended, the 6-foot-8-inch Crimsons center found himself with time on his hands and signed up for art classes. Photography and graphic design changed his mind about his future, pushing him toward an advertising career.

"I like the idea of creating something that people enjoy and making some connection with the majority of the population," he says about advertising's appeal. "It's kind of like creating a hit song, movie or book."

Coleman, 24, says an advertising career will allow him to use his business education and also do creative work, even as he acknowledges that "these days it's hard to be creative for a living." Seeking a competitive advantage, he enrolled at the Chicago Portfolio School after graduating from college in June 2002.

Recent graduates joining the industry face a tough market. Employment in the U.S. advertising industry dropped 6 percent between December 2000 and December 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Recruiters who just three years ago extended immediate job offers to top creative students now have a backlog of applicants, says Samantha Glatzer, a partner at Sam and Lori in New York.

"There may be ten amazing students but only five agencies that can hire," Glatzer says.

With a longer road to their dream jobs, or even their first jobs, advertising hopefuls like Coleman are pouring into graduate programs and portfolio schools. Inquiries for the Virginia Commonwealth University's Adcenter masters program jumped from 270 in August through December 2001 to 762 during the same period in 2002. Enrollment at the Chicago Portfolio School has nearly doubled to 35 students in the past 18 months, says school director Jeff Epstein.

"The ad market may be down right now, but this is a career goal. It's something I want to pursue in the long term," says Anthony Marin, 26, a former account executive who recently enrolled in the Chicago Portfolio School. "I know the ad market is going to turn around sometime, and I may as well have a great book when it does."

Like many others, Marin circulated a raw portfolio when he graduated from college. Creative directors pointed him toward graduate school because his portfolio wasn't up to par.

"Twenty years ago when I did it, you put together your book yourself, and the interviews were kind of the portfolio school," says Epstein. "Now the agencies require that books be so finished and so smart, I don't see how anyone could do a good job on their own."

Landing that first job is always difficult, regardless of the economy, says Epstein, who hunted for his first job in the economic doldrums of the early 1980s. In tough times, job seekers who win the coveted starting positions are the ones with a good book and the determination to fight long and hard to get what they want, he says.

Jamin Hoyle, 26, decided to go into advertising as a way to escape a predictable cubicle career. He graduated from the University of Richmond with a history degree, but soon found there weren't many places to apply his robust knowledge of the Civil War.

After two years as a secretary making photocopies for the Virginia Resources Authority, Hoyle applied for a marketing position at the boutique shop Play in Richmond, Va. The interview process at Play lasted a weekend, and Hoyle enjoyed brainstorming with other potential recruits. Though he didn't get the job, Hoyle so enjoyed the experience that he set his sights on a career in art direction and enrolled at VCU's Adcenter.

"I like working with other creative people, sitting down with a problem and coming up with a solution for it," Hoyle says. "Once you're exposed to it, you see it's pretty glamorous."

And if he doesn't land an industry job, Hoyle jokes that he can still put his creative skills to use. "There's always Hollywood Video," he says. "They're hiring." —Deanna Zammit